It’s been nearly three years since The Journal of Unlikely Entomology made its first appearance, and while this multi-legged publication focused initially on that fertile but narrow intersection of spec fic and bugs, the magazine has since branched out, changed its name, and adopted a rolling series of varied themes (the latest being the upcoming Journal of Unlikely Cryptography, now accepting submissions).
Unlikely Story pays pro rates for fiction, a rarity these days, and manages to make the stories they present look sharper than switchblades by moonlight. Here’s my interview with editors A.C. Wise and Bernie Mojzes.
Unlikely Story has not only shortened its name, you’ve upped the pay rate. Nobody does both those things in one short span. Have you gone quietly mad?
A.C.: That implies we weren’t mad to begin with… I mean, we started off publishing a magazine exclusively about bugs, how sane can we be?
The presentation of Unlikely Story is really a cut above, with original artwork gracing each published story. How do you seek out potential artists? Who are you excited about working with again?
A.C.: I’ll let Bernie answer this one.
Bernie: In the first couple years of being a published author, I had a number of… well, let’s use the word “unfortunate” to describe the experiences, everything from unfortunate editing to unfortunate aesthetics to unfortunate lack of professionalism, and I was determined that Unlikely Story, nee The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, would strive to do a better job, both in how we present ourselves to our readers and in how we interact with our contributors. On the aesthetic front, we’re lucky to have the incomparable Linda Saboe as artistic director. She’s responsible for the overall look of the ‘zine, the web design, and much of the art that ties the site together (much like the Dude’s rug). She also reads all the stories and hunts for art and artists for each one. Of that process, I’ll let her speak directly.
Linda: After I read the stories, I look for work to fit from various online art sites, such as deviantART, and also from a few artists who have agreed to illustrate specific stories for us. My main goal is to find an image that fits the mood and feel of the story rather than something that is a literal, visual interpretation. So if an abstract piece makes me feel the same way the story did, I’ll use that over a realistic photograph of a bug or flower or whatever. It’s also important that the work is good art, so I like to look at the artist’s body of work when available. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to find so many fine artists from all over the world willing to allow us to publish their work. We’ve shown artists from all age groups (our youngest artist was fifteen), working in diverse styles, from traditional oil paints to computer-generated fractals. The internet is a fabulous resource for artists and authors to find each other.
You’ve published everything from the whimsical (“Three Adventures Of Simon Says, the Elder,” by Daniel Ausema) to hard-nosed military horror (“Deep, Dark,” by Jonathan Maberry). Does having catholic tastes in style and material make it harder to pick work for publication?
A.C.: In a way, it makes it easier. We don’t limit ourselves to genre or style, so we’re never faced with the dilemma of coming across a story we love and saying, “Damn! If only it were a cozy cat mystery/transformers fanfic mash-up we could take it, but alas…” The only real difficulty comes with stories that don’t meet our particular theme for the issue – bugs, architecture, etc. Luckily, we haven’t been faced with too many instances of stories we adore, but just aren’t right for our purposes.
Bernie: But on those rare occasions when we get a fantastic story that’s just a hair not quite on topic enough, it makes us sad. That’s the danger of themed issues. What’s interesting is the kinds of thematic patterns that emerge across styles as we look at the stories we’ve selected ––coincidence, maybe? Or perhaps it’s the act of bringing together different things that exposes subtle layers of meaning, in a John Cage-ish way. Whatever, it’s interesting.
Given the difficulties of attracting readership, what’s your strategy for getting Unlikely Story noticed?
A.C.: Begging? Giving passers-by sad puppy dog eyes? Sneaking up on people and fiction-bombing them? Hmm, that gives me ideas… Actually, in all seriousness, it’s a lot of word of mouth. We attend conventions and author events; we’re on twitter and other forms of social media. I try not to be obnoxious or pushy about it, but if there’s a graceful opportunity to work Unlikely Story into the conversation, whether in person or online, I’ll do it!
Bernie: Tricking people into thinking it was their idea to interview us? Really, A.C. is much better at the whole getting-the-word-out thing than I am. One thing that’s been successful for us is finding an interesting and novel approach to what we are; when we first announced The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, I saw it scattered across social media coupled with the phrase “best title EVAH!” But the thing that matters most – offering compelling stories that people want to read – is the first step, and I think we have that bit down.
What have you been reading for fun — or is it all slush pile these days?
A.C.: I’m currently reading Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. It’s the third book in her Fairyland series, which I love for many reasons. It’s a book for younger readers that refuses to talk down to its audience, doesn’t shy away from complicated themes, is full Valente’s usual gorgeous prose, and features a female protagonist with full agency who never needs to be rescued and who more than once saves the world.
Bernie: Clockwork Phoenix 4, which is fabulous so far. I have a strange Roger Zelazny western, a Jonathan Carroll novel, a Ray Bradbury tale, and a Tom Swift novel from the 30’s in various stages of read-ness. I also just picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, which is possibly the only how-to-write book I think I can bring myself to read.
If you could have written any book or story, what would it be?
A.C.: That’s a tough question! The practical part of me wants to say something like Carrie, a book that would rocket me out of obscurity and into fortune and fame, ensuring that publishers and readers would always be eager for my next work. The purely impractical part of me says to hell with what’s already been done! It’s what I might do one day that interests me. The future is full of possibilities, after all.
Bernie: Written, or re-written? I think I’d like to have (re)written Lost, but without all the stupid bits, and without the annoying screechy violin noise that seems to have infiltrated lots of different TV shows. There are a lot of things that make me ache with wanting to be able to write like that, (Gravity’s Rainbow, The Drowning Girl, “Spar,” to name but a few) but that doesn’t translate to wanting to have written that book or story (have you read Borges’ “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote”? (perhaps I need to include that in my list (yes, I think I do))).
If you had to sum up what makes an Unlikely story, what qualities might those be?
A.C.: Another tough question! I’m sure authors everywhere cringe when editors say ‘I’ll know it when I see it’, but it’s also true. If there were a simple list authors could tick off to ensure publication with any market, there would be no such thing as rejection notices. That said, I personally have a fondness for stories that use language in beautiful and unusual ways, avoid stock characters and over-used tropes, or put a new twist on our given theme. I’m also partial to dark stories, though I won’t kick an author out of bed for giving me a happy ending. Um, wait. Maybe I should rephrase that? Nah! I’m sure all your readers are pure of mind.
Bernie: Of course, even if there was a simple list, some folks would still fail to read the guidelines. This is stolen directly from Ekaterina Sedia: a story that haunts my dreams. If a story follows me around after I close the file and stop thinking about submissions or the magazine, chances are it’ll be gracing our pages.
How did you first meet your erstwhile mascot and spiritual sponsor, Sir Reginald?
A.C.: I’ll let Bernie handle this one, too…
Bernie: Oh, that’s a longish story, and I’ll happily tell you should we find ourselves sitting in the same pub at the same time, over a pint of gin or somesuch. For now, I’ll just say that it involves a caterpillar, and an unexpected call for submissions.
You’re both writers. What are you each working on right now? What’s newly available?
A.C.: I have kind of an odd fear of talking too much about works-in-progress. I always think that will somehow jinx them. So, at the moment, short stories! Is that vague enough? As for what’s newly available, September and October have been pretty good to me. I have stories out in Shimmer #17, Halloween: Magic, Mystery and the Macabre, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Whispers from the Abyss, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and Once Upon a Time: New Fairytales.
Bernie: I’ve been asked to write a sequel to the first story I ever sold, at novella length. I just re-read that story for the first time in years, and am horrified (that thing fledgeling writers do where the POV wanders around from head to head within a scene? Yeah, that. It even hopped into the dog’s head for a paragraph!). Still, there’s a story there to be told, better this time, I hope, and maybe NaNoWriMo will give me a reasonable first draft. Of things recent and pending: I have a story coming out in November in the anthology Clockwork Chaos, an epic monkey-and-beer story in Big Pulp’s Apeshit! issue, and you a story in Betwixt Magazine #1. Of all the stories I’ve had published, I think the one in Betwixt is the one I’m most proud of, and the riskiest.
You’ve got a couple hours to kill, and Netflix is staring you in the face. Do you go with Doctor Who, Firefly, or The Walking Dead?
A.C.: Doctor Who! While I love Firefly, there’s so much more to choose from with Doctor Who, and I find the episodes infinitely re-watchable. Plus, I still have a good bit of catching up to do, since I came to the series with the reboot.
Bernie: Yes, Doctor Who. Tom Baker was my Doctor, and I love going back to them (though I have a great fondness for Christopher Eccleston in the role). But really, I’m more likely to pull up either The Good Wife or Lexx, the former because of the impeccable storytelling, and the second because, well, I’m too old for Teletubbies.
When given the option, do you default to old-guard physical books, or are you a convert to Kindles and e-Readers?
Bernie: Physical books. I have a really hard time keeping my attention on novels I’ve started reading on e-readers, and I find myself re-reading the same paragraphs endlessly. Short form fiction, fine, but longer form just needs to be on paper. Which is why I find the trend toward e-book only publishers disturbing.
What cons do you attend? Any favorites?
A.C.: I’m a big fan of Readercon; I’d have to say it’s my favorite of the cons I’ve attended thus far. I generally attend Philcon, since it’s my local con. I tentatively have my eye on Wiscon for next year, and World Fantasy, since it’ll be happening relatively close to home. I’d also like to do World Horror at least once. I was tempted when it was in New Orleans, because I love the city, but I love it slightly less in summer, when the con was taking place.
Bernie: Readercon was pretty fantastic. If you’re looking for panels like “Pirates or Ninjas: Which are better at slaying vampires?” this is not the con for you. Intelligent, thoughtful discussions by intelligent, thoughtful people. I’ve been attending Philcon and Balticon and will probably continue to, what with them being local and all. I’m sure there’ll be more over time. The Froudian Faeriecon is sorta fun, too, though a very different sort of entity.
Full disclosure: work of mine appears in Unlikely Story #6, with another, much buggier tale to follow in The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, due this November.
After that, I’ll be back in four weeks with a look at Star Trek: Nemesis.
‘Til next time…
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.” In other work, Rigney is the author of ”The Skates,” and its haunted sequels, “Sleeping Bear” and Check-Out Time, forthcoming in 2014.